Fires bolster political support for forest thinning

Fires bolster political support for forest thinning

21 June 2011

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USA — With Arizona’s worst fire season in history still roaring, oft-delayed plans to use a resurrected timber industry to thin millions of acres of badly overgrown Arizona forests have suddenly gained broad support.

In a flurry of developments last week, the Department Agriculture announced $3.5 million in new funding for the 4-Forests Restoration Initiative, the Forest Service released ground rules for contractors and assorted politicians promised their support.

Environmentalists, scientists, loggers and forest managers have worked for years to create The 4-Forests Restoration Initiative (4-FRI), which hopes to convince a revived logging industry to spend millions on new sawmills and power plants that could turn a profit on the small trees now choking millions of acres of forests.

The group that proposed the effort agreed on a plan to thin millions of acres by leaving most of the remaining big trees and focusing on the trees smaller than 16 inches in diameter, which now form tree thickets across millions of acres.

The Forest Service now supports the plan and last week put out requests for proposals for timber companies interested in bidding on 10-year contracts to thin 300,000 acres in the Kaibab, Coconino, Tonto and Apache-Sitgreaves forests.

Ultimately, the project will encompass perhaps a million acres — which is only twice as much as the Wallow Fire consumed. However, by concentrating on areas near forested communities, backers hope that the massive thinning project will provide much greater fire protection for those settlements.

The release of photos from the Wallow Fire effectively underscored the value of that strategy. Some of the photos show that thinned areas stopped the fire in many places.

Backers hope the promise of a steady supply of the small-diameter trees will convince private industry to invest millions in building a network of new sawmills that can turn small trees into particle board and other wood products, plus power plants that can generate electricity by burning wood scraps and brush.

However, supporters like Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin have called on the Forest Service to consider 20-year contracts, rather than the 10-year contracts envisioned in the initial request for proposals. She maintains that timber companies won’t risk investing millions without a longer-term guarantee of wood, especially in view of the Forest Service’s history of long delays and sudden shifts.

The project has received a flush of new support in the wake of the Wallow Fire, still burning along the Arizona-New Mexico border near Alpine. That 500,000-acre fire is still only partially contained, with more than 4,400 firefighters still on the fire line.

Senators John McCain and Jon Kyl plus Congressmen Paul Gosar and Jeff Flake held a joint press conference in Springerville on Friday and called on the Forest Service to move quickly to implement the tree-thinning plan on a large scale.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced last week the award of a fresh $3.5 million grant to support 4-FRI. The money would help the Forest Service deal with things like endangered species and archaeological sites that might be affected by the forest thinning project.

“We’re pleased to support the projects that are actively encouraging the restoration of our priority forest landscapes while creating green jobs and economic opportunity in rural communities,” said Vilsack.

The key to the agreement that united the most active environmental groups and representatives of the timber industry lay in the plan to leave standing most of the trees larger than 16 inches in diameter.

Such big trees used to dominate the forest, spaced at 10 to 30 big trees per acre, the trees suffered little damage from the grass fires that swept through every five to seven years.

However, loggers took most of the big trees and cattle ate most of the grass in early decades of the 20th century. A massive ponderosa pine seed crop in 1919 resulted in thickets of saplings and decades of successful fire suppression allowed them to grow into today’s dense pine forests, with densities often approaching 1,000 trees per acre.

The 4-FRI would thin the small trees, leave the big trees and hopefully gradually restore more natural conditions.

However, the Forest Service has so far refused to say whether in its version of a restoration treatment it would necessarily leave most of the 16-inch trees. That could cause the agreement to unravel.

Moreover, backers are waiting anxiously for the first proposals from the timber companies. No one knows whether timber companies will take the risk of bidding on a contract.

The Apache-Sitgreaves Forests last week convened an emergency response team to figure out how to cope with the aftermath of the Wallow Fire — especially when it comes to preventing floods from sending mud flows down the denuded slopes.

That’s exactly what happened to Flagstaff last summer after the Schultz Fire charred an area that had been at the head of the line for thinning under 4-FRI. Heavy rains hit right after the fire, sending mudslides crashing through many houses that had survived the fire.

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